Jamming in the hills with Paul Simon!
Here on a hush-hush holiday, Paul Simon of Simon & Garfunkel fame savours some Alien Accent music.
By Feizal Samath
Sri Lanka has drawn its share of foreign celebrities to enjoy the scenic beauty of the country but who would have thought singer Paul Simon would want to spend a holiday in a country that is often perceived to be at war.
´Paul Simon? ´¦ the name didn´t ring a bell in the first instance,´ recalled Dominique Nordman, CEO of Forbes & Walker Leisure that manages the four plantation bungalows of Ceylon Tea Trails.
´It took some time to sink in and then I realized it was THE Paul Simon, the musician, who has been one of my favourites,´ he said tracing the steps that led to the legendary musician spending Boxing Day and the New Year in the hills at an exclusive Tea Trails bungalow.
Simon, 65, of the folk duo Simon & Garfunkel whose music enriched the 1960-80s generation with great hits like ´Bridge over Troubled Water´, ´Boxer´, ´Mrs Robinson´, ´Sounds of Silence´ and many more, not only visited some of the country´s major tourist attractions but was also entertained by Sri Lanka´s own Alien Accent, the western folk-rock band with a touch of traditional local music.
His assessment (in many words) at the end of a 10-day tour of the hill country and Cultural Triangle: ´Fabulous place; Great music.´
It was a heart-stopping 10 days for the team at Tea Trails led by Thilan Wijesinghe, Group CEO/Managing Director of Forbes & Walker Ltd and Nordman as they made sure Simon and the group of 12 were well looked after and provided the best that Sri Lanka can offer in terms of hospitality, comfort and most of all - in this particular case - privacy.
The team was sworn to secrecy to make sure word didn´t get out about Simon´s visit before and during his stay. That also applied to Alien Accent comprising D.K. Wijesingha and Dillain Joseph who were joined by like-minded musicians including former members Husni Ghouse, Suresh Jayawickrema and Thilan Wijesinghe, a musician himself.
A moment to remember (l-r): Suresh, Paul Simon, Dillain, D.K. and Husni
Simon, who was persuaded by his friend John Hardy to come to Sri Lanka on a totally private visit, from all accounts enjoyed the tour with his and Hardy´s families. The group of 12 trekked, went mountain biking, enjoyed the lush tea gardens, picnicked and even spent time at a railway station.
It all began when Nordman was informed by Hardy, a jeweller, that the latter would like to visit Sri Lanka on holiday. ´He then asked me - in an email - whether he could bring along some friends,´ Nordman recalled. The friends turned out to be Simon, his song-writing wife and their children!
To Nordman and the Tea Trails team, it was a pleasant surprise and an honour to meet such a celebrity personally and host him. Nordman and Hardy´s friendship goes back to the 1970s when they met in Bali where Hardy still spends time.
Ideal hideaway: Exclusive Tea Trails bungalow.
Asked whether there were any security concerns, Nordman said: ´On the security issue, John was able to put things in some perspective having lived in Indonesia where there is also violence.´
But of bigger concern was the chikungunya epidemic which has spread in parts of the country. ´There were many emails that were exchanged before we convinced them it was safe. Paul was concerned because of his children,´ Nordman said.
Picking up the ´Paul Simon stays at Tea Trails story´, Thilan Wijesinghe said that when the final confirmation came about Simon´s visit, he put on his other hat as a musician and felt the legendary artiste should be given an opportunity of listening to some of the musicians whom he has inspired over the years.
The band in which the former Alien Accent members played an active role - Husni coming out of retirement from music - got into their act and rehearsed for a 40-minute session with seven songs made up of six originals (one from Thilan) and a Lankan version of Simon´s ´You can call me Al´.
The entire itinerary was handled and guided by Miguel Cunat who helped identify the Tea Trails´ bungalows and was involved in its feasibility. The group visited Sigiriya, the Cultural Triangle and walked the trails amongst tea bushes and tea pluckers.
Wijesinghe said the way the Paul Simon tour was handled from the outset proves that Sri Lanka can attract high quality tourists if ´we can manage our PR (public relations)´.
Alien Accent puts on their own show for Paul Simon and family.
´What we did was a personal PR job to pull this off. Just imagine if we could do this for the whole country?´ he said.
To Suresh Jayawickrema and D.K. Wijesingha, it was a dream come true. ´Of all the influences we got from the west, Paul Simon has been there from the word go,´ said Jayawickrema.
Excited, overawed, unbelievable ... were some of the words used to describe the mounting tension that swept the Alien Accent camp and the team at Tea Trails. Here was a guest who has sung his way into the hearts of millions of people from the US, to Africa to the Far East over a span of over 40 years, now spending time in a small, plush bungalow in Sri Lanka´s beautiful tea country!
On January 4, the band, nervous but eager, waited in a nearby bungalow in the same compound of the Tientsin Bungalow where Paul and the family were staying.
The band was backed by Jananath Warakagoda (ethnic percussion), Ranil Gunawardene (guitar), Ratnam Rathnadurai (tabla and Ghatum), Anthony Surendra (mandolin) and Nuwan Balasuriya (flute).
´We saw him for the first time as he walked into the sitting room where the concert was being held,´ said D.K. Wijesingha. A tense first song passed.
´We told the guys that if Paul walks out in the first song (we didn´t know how he would react), we´ll keep on playing,´ he recalled. Thankfully, the first song was well received by the small audience. ´That gave us strength and fortified our frayed nerves,´ laughed Wijesingha.
The rest of the session was perfect with the songs well received with hand-clapping accompanying the rhythmic beats of Sri Lankan sounds, particularly one which echoed the baila. ´I can´t describe the feeling when Suresh, Husni and DK sang Paul Simon´s song with him listening. It was surreal,´ said Dillain Joseph.
´Fabulous, it´s great,´ Simon told the group after the last song and then had a few words with the band and posed for pictures. He was interested in the Ghatum, picked up DK´s Ovation guitar and began strumming.
Quietly the others joined in and they all jammed during a 5 to 6 minute session of pure music. The Lankans had no words to describe this´¦ no words were also sung during this impromptu jam.
Simon also invited his 12-year-old son Adrian to join in and he played a fabulous set on guitar. Adrian is a songwriter himself.
Guest book comments from Simon at Tientsin: ´The whole family thoroughly enjoyed our visit. Thank you for the hospitality.´ Simon said he would like to visit Sri Lanka again.